When it’s time to begin shopping for your child’s dorm room, take it from this experienced parent: Ignore 90% of the items on the lists you find online! Your kid isn’t going to want, need, nor have room for most of that stuff. I’m sharing my experiences sending two girls to college so far, and I hope you’ll find these tips helpful as you plan for your own college-bound son or daughter’s first dorm room.

What Does Your College Freshman REALLY Need for Their Dorm Room?

The Dorm Room Bed

Sheets: Every college I’ve ever encountered features what is called a Twin XL bed. While a standard twin bed is only 75″ long, these are the same length as a Queen at 80″ long. You’ll spend your summer looking for the perfect shade of blue sheets that come in twin XL. You’ll be frustrated when you can’t find them. Your student may be coordinating their colors with their roommates. When you settle on the right Twin XL sheets, grab two sets. Your kidling is going to need to launder them occasionally.

Comforter: This is where I deviate from “norms” and teach you from experience. BUY A FULL/QUEEN size for their bed. First of all, the beds are often raised and this allows the overhang that looks best. Secondly, in our case, the kid was only guaranteed a dorm room for her freshman year. Now she’s moving into her first apartment, and must buy a NEW comforter for the full-size bed in the furnished apartment. If we’d just bought the bigger one last year, it would have saved her some money.

Pillows: Many kids like to prop up in bed while they’re reading or studying. Or they’ve got friends in the dorm and their bed is used as a sofa. Or their younger sister is coming to visit for a weekend. I feel 2-4 standard pillows are best for their dorm room. Add in a throw pillow or two for decoration.

Throw blanket: Great for the foot of the bed, snuggling in with a book, or throwing over the younger sibling sleeping over. A throw blanket is a definite item to bring from home.

Mattress Pad: Whether you choose the egg-crate style or go higher-end, this is a must-have. Those mattresses are horrid. I would even say go ahead and purchase the full-size mattress pad as well, the excess will tuck easily down the far side of the mattress and be hidden by the sheets.

Air mattress & pump: An option to consider. It seems that there are often stray college kids sleeping wherever they fall, or overnight visitors. If you have one to spare, great idea. If you don’t and don’t want to purchase one, no worries.

You don’t need to purchase bed risers before arriving. If you find you need them later, a quick trip to a local retailer will solve the issue. Both of my girls had beds that easily allowed you to raise the mattress height.

Moving Emily into the dorm in 2013. Their double had to be a triple for the first semester, so it was VERY tight.
Moving Emily into the dorm in 2013. Their double had to be a triple for the first semester, so it was VERY tight.

Other Dorm Room Decor Items

A rug: I’ve found that dorm floors are usually solid surfaces that are easy to clean and disinfect. Emily’s room at ODU had laminate wood flooring. Niki’s dorm at JMU was hard tile. You may want a rug to soften the floors a bit, they can get quite cold and hard. Usually a 5×7 or 6×9 size will work well for a dorm room.

Command strips: A package of these can be invaluable for hanging some mementos from home, or a wall calendar or bulletin board. Most dorm rooms have cinderblock walls, and nailing anything up isn’t an option.

Vinyl Decals: Easy to apply, easy to remove at the end of the year. Great for breaking up all of that white wall space.

Vinyl Decals are easy to apply and easy to remove in a dorm room.
Vinyl Decals are easy to apply and easy to remove in a dorm room. Storage bins under the bed are a lifesaver.

Organizers, cubes, and bins: There is never enough storage for a semi-grown person to have everything they’ll want or need for 9 months of the year stashed into a tiny space with another semi-grown person (or two). Organizers are a great investment. If you can find out during Orientation about bed heights, you may be able to shop for drawer systems that fit under the bed, like my daughter did. Whether your child needs to store clothes, snacks, or other supplies, they’ll be grateful for the extra space. Those bins are great for packing items as you travel to/from college as well. A bungee cord or tape wrapped around will keep the drawers closed.

You don’t need curtains. They won’t be easy to hang, and could potentially turn in to a fire hazard. My younger daughter brought some from home, but didn’t use them. Also, an RA may be required to treat them with a fire retardant before being hung.

You should discourage your child from deciding they need a fish in their dorm room as well. No one ever wants to clean the bowl, and somehow I ended up fish-sitting over Spring Break. That is, after “Little Jimmy” was successfully transported to my house in a tupperware container and I worried the entire drive home…

The Dorm Room Desk

A Hutch Over the Desk: at JMU, where my younger daughter just finished her freshman year, you can opt to rent a hutch for over the desk. I think they were $65 for the year? Niki had grandaddy build hers out of oak, to her specifications, and it made her desk so much more functional. Her roommate rented hers. Owning her own is great, as she can now take it with her to her apartment and use it over that desk as well. When Emily attended ODU, the desks had built-in hutches. Check with your child’s college to see what they offer, but it’s worth it for all of the extra storage and organization it provides.

A hutch over the desk in a dorm room adds valuable storage.

A laptop: Laptops save so much space over traditional PC’s, and are much easier to transport to class and take notes. Most often, the kids submit their work electronically anyway. A laptop is a great investment.

Lamps AND Bulbs: Your college student will need good lighting. We opted for a floor lamp with multiple arms that could be pointed toward the desk, the bed, and the ceiling. Don’t forget light bulbs!

School supplies: This is a no-brainer, but honestly, don’t buy anything but a few basics until the kid starts classes and knows what exactly they may need.

Power strip: The laptop, the lamp, the cell phone charger, and many other things need plugged in. Most dorms are very limited with the outlets available. Having two power strips available during move-in will make life easier.

The Dorm Room Electronics & Appliances

Printer & Refrigerator: Check with the roomie to see who may want to bring one. At JMU, the dorm my child lived in featured suites, with 3 rooms of 2 girls each attached to a common area. There really wasn’t a need for 4 refrigerators and 6 printers, but somehow that became the case. One printer in the common area, with each girl rotating who supplied ink & paper, worked well for all. This techy generation easily connected wirelessly to the printer. Most dorms don’t allow a microwave.

Coffee Maker: My kid became a coffee addict during her freshman year. A small Kuerig was a good option for her.

Water Filter: this was very handy for the girls to keep in their refrigerator. Especially since the bathroom sink was their primary source of water in the dorm room.

A fan (or two): Seldom are dorms air-conditioned, and there will be some time when you first take your child to college that it’s still quite warm outside. Having a fan is a necessity under those circumstances. And because the heat is often centrally-controlled and warmer-than-comfortable, it will still get year-round use. Also great for a sleeper who wants white noise.

The Dorm Room Bathroom

Shower Caddy: if your child has to walk down the hall to the bathroom that is shared by multiple people, this is a necessity. If they have an ensuite bathroom and can leave their toiletries in there, then it’s a waste of money and space. Know what your student needs before you shop.

Towels: At least 4 bath towels, 2 hand towels, and 4-6 washcloths. Plain white are practical, but quickly lost. Have your child shop for something in his or her “signature” color. Use a sharpie on the tag to add their initials.

Bathrobe: this depends again on the same criteria for the shower caddy, as well as your child’s personal preferences. She may want to wrap in a towel. Leave this decision to her, but if she’s never used a bathrobe her entire life, don’t expect it to get much use now.

Shower shoes: enough said. Buy them. Or another option if your kid hates the idea – a rubbery dish mat that can be laid on the floor of the shower while he bathes. Then he just rolls it up and puts it in his shower caddy until next time.

Miscellaneous Items For the Dorm Room

Snacks for between meals, early mornings, late nights, grumpy afternoons… always a good idea.

Travel coffee mugs, preferably the type that don’t break easily. Great for coffee or ramen noodles.

Utensils are a must. You can go plastic here and no clean-up required, providing Junior knows where he/she hid the wastebasket.

Cold meds & First Aid Kit for those times when she has a fever, a headache, cuts her leg shaving, etc.

Photo frames: if the photo is coming from home already framed and there is a place for it, fine. If not, leave it off the list.

Bottle Opener & Can Opener: You just never know when these will be needed. The old-fashioned manual type of each are best.

A small tool kit: My girls each have miniature tool boxes with a hammer (because the bed rungs are stuck), pliers, a wrench, etc. Just a few basic tools for when the need arises, and they’re useful long after the freshman year of college.

Ziploc bags are handy and convenient. Get gallon-size as well as sandwich-size.

Hangers: somehow my kid forgot to pack hers. Thankfully her dorm was only 15 minutes from home, so we added it to the list of things Momma needed to drop back to her the next day. She did follow advice and not take all of her colder weather clothes when she first moved in, and then later forgot to bring enough warm clothes home for Thanksgiving break.

The massive mess of unpacking Emily's dorm room.
The massive mess of unpacking Emily’s dorm room.

Cleaning the Dorm Room

Okay, so my oldest isn’t a clean freak but she doesn’t like filth. The younger one is OCD about cleaning. Both were grateful to have cleaning supplies in their dorm rooms.

Wastebasket and bags: Another no-brainer. Now finding someone to carry the trash down, that’s priceless.

A broom, mop, and/or swiffer: The OCD child actually bought her own. And a mini vacuum. Check with the college, though, as often there is a “Housekeeping Closet” with these types of supplies readily available. I’d suggest a small dustpan with hand broom for quick & easy cleanups.

Cleaning Sprays: Let me tell you – no matter how healthy your kid has been all of her life, she will constantly call that she’s sick. It seems that as soon as one suite-mate is healthy, another is down for the count, in a big cycle all year. I highly recommend bleach cleaner and disinfectant be available for his/her use at any time.

Paper Towels: Another obvious one for cleaning up spills and wiping down surfaces.

Dishwashing detergent: For the coffee mugs, miscellaneous bowls, etc. that get left in the sink. Disposable dishes are better for kids who don’t like to clean up after themselves. I like my Scotch Brite Wand – fill the handle with detergent and it automatically soaps the sponge head while cleaning. No need for dishcloths that get smelly or mildew between laundry loads.

Laundry Hamper & Detergent: Doing laundry at college is EXPENSIVE. Your child will probably wait until she’s not only worn all of her clean clothes, but her roommate is now also out of clean laundry. A hamper or basket that is easy to carry to the laundry room as well as store in the dorm room is a good idea. A stash of quarters may be necessary, but in this day & age I’ve also learned that they can swipe their campus ID card and the laundry machines will debit from their student account. Plenty of soap & softener is also necessary. But don’t worry, your child will still find a way to bring home a month’s worth of laundry when they visit.

Don’t Let the Dorm Room Shopping Break the Bank

This may be your child’s first time getting to make all of their own choices. They will want to buy things they really won’t end up needing, just because they haven’t done this before. Help guide their decisions as they shop, set a budget (or make them set one if they’re paying for their own dorm room decor), and don’t overload the car. Your freshman needs a seat for this trip. And in the end, it’s all about making a space that THEY are happy and productive in.

Niki happy she’s finally getting moved in to her dorm at James Madison University.

Have you already sent a child to college? Do you have any advice you’d like to add to this post? Be sure to leave a comment so those who come after you can benefit from your wisdom.

Taking Emily out to lunch before we left her at Old Dominion University. One last moment where we had our baby all to ourselves.
Taking Emily out to lunch before we left her at Old Dominion University. One last moment where we had our baby all to ourselves.


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2 comments on “Dorm Room Decorating 101: What Does Your College Freshman REALLY Need?”

  1. So happy they have bed risers now! My roommate and I used cinder blocks and I was always a little scared my bed would fall over. Great tips and you made me laugh. <3

    • Too funny Dixie! I ended up with a loft bed my sophomore year, which freed up a lot of space. Hated climbing up and down though. And I worried I’d fall 6 feet to my death.
      I still have a set of bed risers the oldest purchased, brand new with packaging. Once they redesigned dorm beds, they became obsolete. I hang on to them just in case third child needs them…

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